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What are the Eastern Catholic churches?

The one, holy, catholic and apostolic church is a communion of particular churches, each united in faith and headed by a bishop in communion with the bishop of Rome, but the expression “particular church” may also be taken in another sense, to refer to an organically united communion of particular churches which shares a distinct canonical, theological, liturgical and spiritual heritage. The Catholic Church is thus a body of 24 “sui iuris” (autonomous) churches. Having more than 1 billion members, the Latin Church, utilizing the Roman rite, is by far the largest of the sui iuris churches. The other 23 sui iuris churches are known collectively as the Eastern Catholic churches, with distinct ritual traditions: Byzantine, Alexandrian, East and West Syriac, and Armenian. While sharing the same faith, each ritual tradition has its own unique way of celebrating the sacraments; its own ecclesial governance; its own particular architecture and iconography; and its own cherished saints, devotions and ascetical practices.

During the early spread of Christianity, patriarchates headed by patriarchs (bishops with canonical jurisdiction over other bishops of a certain territory) developed in the East as a means of effectively administering the ever-growing universal church, with each patriarchate developing its own distinctive traditions. As political and theological differences increased, some groups of churches found themselves out of communion with the rest of the church. In the fifth and sixth centuries, objecting to the council of Chalcedon (451), the Coptic, Syriac, and Armenian churches broke communion (today, these are known collectively as the Oriental Orthodox Churches). Beginning in the 17th century, however, some local churches within these communities restored communion with Rome and are now among the sui iuris Eastern Catholic Churches: the Coptic (1741), Ethiopian (1846) and Eritrean (2015) Catholic Churches, formed from the Alexandrian liturgical tradition; the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church (1663), from the East Syriac tradition; the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church (1930), from the West Syriac tradition; and the Armenian Catholic Church (1742), from the Armenian liturgical tradition. Apart from these but within the Syriac liturgical tradition also are included the Maronite Church, which claims to have never broken communion with Rome, and the Chaldean Catholic Church, which resumed communion in 1552.

Although Rome and Constantinople severed communion with each other in the 11th century, other eastern churches within the Byzantine tradition continued to remain in communion with both Rome and Constantinople. As a result of the councils of Florence (1438-39) and Trent (1545-63), Muslim aggression, and the Protestant Reformation encroaching eastward, many Eastern bishops sought to restore communion with Rome. In 1596 at the Union of Brest, Orthodox bishops in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth reaffirmed their union with Rome; today, this church, which suffered greatly in the 20th century, is known as the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church and is the largest sui iuris Eastern Catholic church. The year 1646 saw the reunion of the churches of the Carpathian Mountains; today, this is the sui iuris Byzantine Catholic Church in the United States. In 1724, members of the patriarchate of Antioch chose communion with Rome to become the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church. These and many other churches that originate in the Eastern Orthodox churches utilize the Constantinopolitan (Byzantine) liturgical tradition each in their own spiritual “dialects.”

The Second Vatican Council affirmed that all churches, East and West, are of equal dignity and that the Eastern churches should preserve and even restore their traditions if neglected. In his 1995 “Orientale Lumen,” Pope John Paul II exhorted Catholics that the Eastern tradition “is an integral part of the heritage of Christ’s Church” from which to be nourished. He urged that Roman Catholics “must also be fully acquainted with this treasure and thus feel, with the Pope, a passionate longing that the full manifestation of the Church’s catholicity be restored to the Church.”

To learn about the traditions of the Christian East, visit the many Eastern Catholic churches in our area: St. Jude (Syro-Malabar) in Chantilly; Medhanie Alem (Eritrean) in Annandale; Holy Transfiguration (Melkite) in McLean; Epiphany of Our Lord (Ruthenian Byzantine) in Annandale; Saints Joachim and Anna (Ukrainian) in Front Royal; Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Ukrainian) in Manassas; Holy Family Shrine (Ukrainian) in Washington; and Our Lady of Lebanon (Maronite) in Washington.

Wallace is an adjunct professor at Christendom Graduate School of Theology in Alexandria.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020